Daily Herald

Thursday, October 14, 1999

Child support checks caught in new system

BY ROBERT MCCOPPIN
Daily Herald Staff Writer
Daily Herald (Illinois, USA)

Thousands of child support payments statewide are indefinitely delayed due to a change in how Illinois distributes the money, officials revealed Wednesday.

Many divorced parents have not received any checks since the DuPage County Circuit Court Clerk took over child support disbursement for the state Oct. 1.

There's no telling exactly when parents will get their checks, but officials hope to clear the backlog by month's end, said Joel Kagann, county court clerk.

The delay is putting a strain on parents who depend on the checks for daily living expenses, lawyers said.

Parents are flooding court clerks with hundreds of calls to see where their money is. Some clerks referred the public to a phone number meant for officials only, jamming the line and leaving frustrated parents with no information.

"I'm just appalled," said Lori Crozier, a divorced mother waiting for a child support payment in Bartlett. "The whole system is supposed to protect women from husbands who hold them hostage by withholding payments. Why would you put a system in place with this many problems?

"I can hold out until next week," she added. "There's a lot of moms out there who live and die by these checks."

The crisis was prompted by a 1996 change in federal law mandating that states each create one central point for routing child support payments. Failure to do so could cost a state millions of dollars in federal aid.

Court clerks previously handled the payments through each of the 102 counties in the state. The Illinois Department of Public Aid chose the DuPage court clerk to do the job for the entire state because of DuPage's reputation as a leader in computerization.

To handle the task, DuPage formed and trained a new department of 51 workers to create a database of 250,000 recipients' names.

But the new system ran into problems right off the bat.

Court clerks were late supplying DuPage with recipients' addresses, some of which had not yet come as of Wednesday. Some address lists were in a format DuPage computers could not read, so workers worked overtime typing in the information, Kagann said.

At the same time, the system's computers have had problems communicating with the network, and welfare recipients' payments are routinely delayed overnight to square accounts with the Illinois Department of Public Aid.

In addition, officials did not anticipate the huge volume of mail that poured in from the first day. "We've just been snowed in since then," Kagann said.

The new State Disbursement Unit had sent 22,000 checks before Wednesday, but got some 19 trays of new checks, or about 12,000 pieces of mail during the past weekend alone.

Kagann anticipates handling 5.5 million transactions a year.

Workers from Cook, Kane and McHenry counties have been sent over to help shovel through the backlog, and the public aid workers are answering phones.

Kane County Circuit Court Clerk Deborah Seyller issued a news release stating she temporarily shut down telephone service while sending volunteers to help the State Disbursement Unit.

To make matters worse, attorneys said the problem is causing resentment among some mothers who mistakenly blame fathers, prompting the mothers to keep fathers from visiting their children.

Men's divorce attorney Jeffrey Leving blamed the problem on forcing fathers to pay through a bureaucracy, rather than directly to ex-spouses.

"The problem has been created by the distrust of fathers in the legal system, because of the stereotype of most dads being deadbeats," Leving said. "The child gets victimized, and it has nothing to do with wrongdoing by the fathers."

James Keller, a father who pays $500 a month to support his 12-year-old daughter, said his wife in Hanover Park had not received either of his checks this month.

He decided instead to directly pay his wife, who is a student, while the problem continues.

"If she doesn't get this money," he said, "she's going to be very low on cash."

It's risky to pay an ex-spouse directly, Wheaton divorce attorney Brigid Duffield said, but anyone who does so should get their ex- to sign a receipt, and submit the proof of payment to their court clerk.

She said it's not a problem that can be addressed in the courtroom.

"I just think it's a normal transition change," she said. "The county has an excellent program. I know people are working around the clock."

Kagann predicted "clear sailing" after 30 days.

In the meantime, he urged those with questions to call their local court clerks.